Religious Terrorism: Killing in the Name of God

Police Responding to Terrorism, Remembering and Respecting the Dead

A Definition of Terrorism

Terrorism, broadly speaking, is the use of violent, and often deadly, force aimed at innocent civilians in order to create fear, resulting in social disorder and paralysis. There are several obvious examples of terroristic acts, such as hijacking planes, shooting and bombing non-combatants (innocent men, women and children); beheading them; kidnapping or holding them hostage. Terrorism is usually associated with the political, religious or ideological goals of individuals and groups.

The Crusades as Forms of Religious Terrorism

For example, in the Crusades (circa. 1095 to 1270 C. E), Christians killed Muslims and Muslims killed Christians in the Name of God. Is it not a contradiction to Christianity for a Christian to say, in effect, to a Muslim, “I love Jesus but I will kill you”? Similarly, is it not a contradiction to Islam to say, in effect, to a Christian, I love God but I will kill you”?

What shocks outsiders of Christianity and Islam, especially atheists and agnostics, is how could men who were dedicated to God kill each other for religious purposes? No matter what moral and religious justifications may be offered for such killings, they are clearly wrong and deserve categorical and unequivocal condemnation by believers and non-believers alike.

Religious Terrorism in the 20th and 21st Centuries

Unfortunately, religious terrorism has been a reality throughout many parts of the world. Catholics and Protestants have killed each other in Northern Ireland. Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims continue to kill each other in the Holy Land. Orthodox Serbian Christians have fought Catholic Croatians and Bosnian Muslims in Yugoslavia. Hindu Sikhs have fought with Muslims in India. Muslim extremists have killed in the Name of God in Africa and the Middle East. In short, religion can be used to justify intolerance and murder.

The Beliefs of Terrorists

What motivates men and women to become terrorists? Why do they believe that they must murder innocent men, women and children to advance their political and religious purposes? Pope John Paul II answers,

“Terrorists hold that the truth in which they believe or the suffering that they have undergone are so absolute that their reaction in destroying even innocent lives is justified. Terrorism is often the outcome of that fanatic fundamentalism which springs from the conviction that one’s own vision of the truth must be forced upon everyone else.”

For example, radical Christians who gun-down abortion doctors are religious terrorists. They also commit terroristic acts in bombing abortion clinics. Such Christians “fight” for the unborn child’s right to life but they deprive the doctor of his or her right to life. They believe that all human life is sacred but they attack the doctor’s sacredness of life. However, in doing so, Christian extremists are murdering doctors.

Another example is radical Muslims, such as suicide bombers, believe that they are dying for God and will be rewarded by him. They believe that what they are doing is right. However, believing something does not make it so. In other words, belief does not create reality. No matter how sincere the suicide bombers’ belief (the subjective factor of the moral act) that they will be rewarded by God, their sincerity does not make the act of killing innocent human beings (the objective factor of the moral act) right. In fact, it is murder!

Sincere, Yet Sincerely Wrong

Therefore, a person can be sincere and yet be sincerely wrong. Not only that, but if a moral act were right simply because the person performing it sincerely believes it to be right, then that person cannot be wrong, since he or she sincerely believes that the act is right, which, morally, is absurd.

Intentions, beliefs and convictions — all of which are subjective factors — must be tested against the premise of moral realism, which is the view that deliberately and directly killing innocent human beings is murder (always, everywhere and at all times). If that premise were not right, then the civilized world would be in danger of collapsing, making it an unsafe place to live.

Avoiding Simplistic Conclusions about Islam and Christianity

A criticism of Right-Wing or radical Muslim terrorists should not be construed as a criticism of Islam per se, the religion to which the terrorist belongs. Of course, not all Muslims are terrorists. However, there are Muslims who justify their own beliefs by “proof-texting,” that is, wrenching a religious text from its context as a pretext or cover-up to justify terrorism.

Likewise, a criticism of Right-Wing Christians should not be construed as a criticism of Christianity per se. Not all Christians are, theologically and politically, on the far Right. In the words of John Warwick Montgomery, a scholar of international law,

“[I]t is hardly fair to attribute to the Christian religion acts or opinions that in fact are in direct opposition to Christ’s own teachings.”

The On-Going Need for Religious Reformation

Just as men and women in positions of government can be morally wrong, so can members of churches, synagogues and mosques. When that happens, their respective communities need to be purified or corrected, with a change in moral philosophy and leadership. Therefore, religion should not be the major cause of the world’s problems. Rather, it should contribute to peace on earth and good-will toward human beings (cf. Luke 2:14b).


John Warwick Montgomery, Human Rights and Human Dignity (Dallas, TX.: Probe Books/ Word Publishing, 2nd printing 1986), p. 185.

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